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[post] The Artistry of the Blade: The World of Master Swordsmith Miyairi Norihiro
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Norihiro Miyairi

The Ultimate Cool Japan: “Japanese Swords”

A once-in-a-generation genius swordsmith at the forefront of the Japanese sword-making world, which has been ongoing for over a thousand years: Norihiro Miyairi.

The Japanese sword, a symbol of the samurai and the very essence of Japan’s unique manufacturing, has continued its legacy for over 150 years after the end of the samurai era. But who exactly is Norihiro Miyairi, the swordsmith known as a prodigious figure in the world of Japanese swords?

The Lone Wolf of the Sword-Making World

Once heralded as the “soul of the samurai,” the Japanese sword saw the end of its carriers with the close of the samurai era at the end of the 19th century, which had lasted over a millennium. Additionally, after the Pacific War, in Japan under GHQ occupation, not only was the creation of Japanese swords forbidden, but even the practice of Kendo with bamboo swords was banned.

However, the lineage of sword makers never died out. Even in the 21st century, swordsmiths carry on the distinctive tradition of Japanese sword-making unchanged from the samurai era. Among them is Norihiro Miyairi, who stands out as an outstanding sword-making maestro.

Norihiro, the son of the master swordsmith Kiyohira Miyairi and the nephew of the Living National Treasure Akihira Miyairi, is a thoroughbred of the Miyairi family, which is a prestigious lineage that has continued since the Edo period. Nonetheless, he was always a maverick who followed his own path from a young age.
In Japanese sword-making, each master belongs to a school, and the Miyairi clan follows the “Soshu-den” tradition. However, in 1978, after graduating from the Department of History at the Faculty of Letters of Kokugakuin University, Norihiro, rather unexpectedly, became an apprentice to Masamine Sumitani, a master of a different tradition, “Bizen-den.”

Masamine Sumitani, a Living National Treasure, was an artist who created the unique and splendid “Sumitani Choji” blade pattern. Norihiro was so impressed by Sumitani’s exceptional creativity that he became devoted to him beyond the boundaries of traditional sword-making schools. In the conservative world of sword-making, where tradition is paramount, becoming an apprentice in a different school was unheard of. With his thinking beyond pedigree and schools, Norihiro was seen as a heretic within the sword-making community.

A Distinguished Career as the Youngest Swordsmith to Achieve the Mukansa Title

In 1983, Norihiro Miyairi honed his skills in the Bizen-den tradition under Masamine Sumitani and furthered his mastery by dedicating nine years to the study of the Soshu-den tradition as a direct disciple of his father, Kiyohira. Upon establishing his own forge in Tōmi, Nagano, he swiftly achieved renown, winning numerous accolades at the “New Sword Exhibition,” including the prestigious Takamatsunomiya Prize, the Agency for Cultural Affairs Commissioner’s Award, and the All Japan Swordsmith Association Chairman’s Prize, as well as other honors at the “New Works Small Sword Exhibition.”

At the age of just 39, Miyairi earned the title of Mukansa in 1995, the highest honor among the nearly 350 swordsmiths in Japan, reserved for those who have won the special prize at the New Sword Exhibition more than eight times. He was the youngest to receive this distinction. This achievement expanded his opportunities and reputation beyond Japan. In 2002, he was called to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to supervise the maintenance of their sword collection, and a decade later, he recreated an ancient iron sword from the Eda-Funayama tumulus for the museum.

Between 2002 and 2014, he presented protective swords to the Imperial Princesses Tsuguko, Ayako (now Ayako Moriya), and Noriko (now Noriko Senge) of the Takamado family. In 2003, he forged the entrance ceremony sword for Asashoryu, the famed Mongolian sumo wrestler. His inaugural solo exhibition in 2004, “The World of Swordsmith Norihiro Miyairi,” which marked the founding of Tōmi City, was highly acclaimed. In 2008, he contributed a ceremonial sword to Nikko Futarasan Shrine, recognized with Nikko Toshogu as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and in 2008 and 2012, he crafted a ceremonial sword and a straight blade for the shrine.

At the shrine’s behest, from 2015 to 2019, he took on the task of reconstructing the national treasure “Nikko Ichimonji,” property of the Kuroda family. In 2021, celebrating the completion of Nikko Futarasan Shrine’s main hall, he dedicated the recreated national treasure, “Raikunitoshi Utsushi Kodachi.”

The World’s Singular Tosu Artist

Distinct from the bold domain of Japanese swords, Norihiro Miyairi also exhibits his finesse as an exclusive tosu artist. Tosu, elegant writing and personal adornment tools palm-sized for convenience, were favored by the aristocracy during the Tempyo period. Miyairi is the only tosu artist who can create from forging to ornate decoration, including delicate ivory carvings known as “Bachiru” and meticulously engraved tosu.

In 2009, he successfully restored the Shosoin treasure “Boxwood Comb Sheath Tosu” for the Imperial Household Agency’s Shosoin Office. He continued this exquisite work into the next year, restoring another Shosoin treasure, the “Shosango Tosu.” The art of restoration and reproduction is about recreating treasures precisely as they were, using the materials and techniques from the era of their initial creation—a level of detail beyond the reach of 3D printing.

Miyairi, with his adept skill in perfectly recreating national treasure swords, continues to receive a steady flow of requests for cultural property restoration. In 2011, he was entrusted by the Saitama Prefectural Museum to restore the national treasure “Inariyama Iron Sword,” thus significantly contributing to the preservation and continuation of Japan’s cultural heritage.

Awarded the Esteemed ‘Masamune Prize’ in Swordsmithing

In 2010, marking the pinnacle of his career, Norihiro Miyairi was honored with the “Masamune Prize,” the most prestigious award at the “New Sword Exhibition.” Presently, there are only two swordsmiths in Japan who have received this distinguished prize. The following year, he was recognized as a “Living Intangible Cultural Property” by Nagano Prefecture, and in 2013, he donated a tachi to the prefecture.

That same year, the Ginza Matsuzaki Gallery hosted the “Swordsmith Norihiro Miyairi Exhibition 2013,” which was graced by the presence of Her Highness Princess Hisako of Takamado.

From 2016 to 2018, upon the Tokugawa Museum’s request, Miyairi embarked on the challenging task of reconstructing the “Shokudai Kiri Mitsutada,” a mythical sword belonging to the Mito Tokugawa family that was charred black during the Great Kanto Earthquake. The sword, also featured in the internationally popular anime “Touken Ranbu,” garnered attention worldwide. Between 2023 and 2024, he was commissioned again by the same museum to restore the “Nobori Kudari Ryu Masamune,” a short sword of the Mito family damaged in the earthquake.

Further, the Kyoto National Museum commissioned him to restore the famous “Honebami Toushirou.” This sword was displayed in the museum’s inaugural sword exhibition, “The Artistry and Elegance of Kyoto Swords,” in 2018, and attracted significant attention.
In 2019, Miyairi’s illustrious career was celebrated with the highest Grand Prize at the “Heisei Famous Swords Exhibition.” In 2020, on a commission from Nitroplus, the producers of the internationally acclaimed anime “Touken Ranbu,” he crafted a trio of swords themed “The Beginning” – “Ten,” “Chi,” and “Jin.” The sword “Jin” was consecrated at the Isonokami Shrine in Tenri, Nara Prefecture. The following year, he dedicated the “Tori Sai Gara Byakudan Zaya Kinso Tosu” to the Ise Grand Shrine.

From 2022 to 2023, his tachi, reminiscent of the iron texture from the Nanboku-cho period, was a contender for the Masamune Prize two years in a row.

Having surpassed his Kanreki, Miyairi remains passionately involved in creating swords and tosu, utilizing his signature style and the expertise and research from his restoration endeavors to bravely venture into new realms of modern swordsmithing.